How to help the children of Syrian refugees

Can you imagine what it must be like to carry a child in your arms for weeks, not knowing if they were going to be safe, ...

Can you imagine what it must be like to carry a child in your arms for weeks, not knowing if they were going to be safe, fed, warm or clothed properly? Photo: Caritas/ Facebook

Did you know that every second Syrian refugee is a child? So knowing that, if you could do something practical to help, would you?

Sometime last week, an old friend of mine included me in a group message. In it, she wrote:

I am in Vienna. R is working at the uni and B and I are hanging out, being tourists and general having a lovely time. Life is good in addition to the sights of Vienna, full of things like: green smoothies, farmers markets, homemade organic pumpkin baby food, spelt, chia seeds, children's opera, yoga, baby dance classes. You know, the stuff you get to do when you have all your other needs in life abundantly met.

Did you know that every second Syrian refugee is a child?

Did you know that every second Syrian refugee is a child? Photo: Caritas/ Facebook

Two kilometres from where we are staying, at the train station, the Westbahnhof, thousands of people are arriving into Austria from Syria, mostly over the border with Hungary, although when they closed that recently, they had to change their routes into Austria. And when I say thousands, I should actually say tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. In one night last week, twenty thousand people arrived at a town just over the Austrian border.

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This is the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that we can't even imagine in Australia with our trickle of boats we get ourselves so worked up about.

For over a century, Caritas has provided a broad range of services to help those in need. Caritas is working closely with the Red Cross and OBB Austrian railways to "supply incoming refugees with water, food and clothing". Interested in seeing what she could do to help, my friend Rowan went to the Caritas base at the Westbahnhof. She told us about seeing people, tired and weary from long, arduous journeys with no certain outcomes to focus on. She spoke about the children, some of whom had walked hundreds of kilometres with their parents towards a safety they couldn't be sure was waiting for them. And she told us about seeing pregnant women and mothers with newborn babies, people who had travelled so far from home without so much as a nappy bag.

Can you imagine what it must be like to carry a child in your arms for weeks, she asked, not knowing if they were going to be safe, fed, warm or clothed properly?

The Caritas volunteers directed Rowan to a daily list of items that were required to respond to the needs of refugees crossing the border - things like baby food, nappies, clothes for the approaching winter, coffee, nappy cream and wipes. Every day, Viennese people are reading the list of items needed and bringing what they can to the train station. As Rowan says, "There is something so amazing and heart-rending about watching the ordinary people of the city turn up with bags full of blankets, or shoes, or bananas. Just people, caring for other people."

In her email, Rowan told her Australian friends that if they wished to donate money, she was going to start purchasing items requested by Caritas. After getting her permission to share her message on my public Facebook page, I invited readers to participate. The response has been incredible, with over $2000 raised to help buy food, clothing, toiletries and even some stuffed toys for the children.

During her last trip to the Westbahnhof, Rowan met a family from Afghanistan. The father told her he had served with Australian troops in Urozgan Province. He and his family had walked the whole way from Afghanistan to Austria. He had carried his three year old daughter on his shoulders the entire way, while his wife shared baby carrying duties with an aunt and a grandmother. No pram, no carrier, no wrap - just arms. In their conversation, the man told Rowan that and his family hadn't wanted to leave Afghanistan but that his daughters were in danger and leaving was the only way to keep them safe and guarantee them a future.

Reading these stories, I am reminded me of Warsan Shire's blistering poem, "Home". In it, she writes:

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

Who would choose to take such a treacherous journey, except for people who were trying to get their families to safety?

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of such horror. It's easy to become indifferent to it, reasoning that if it's not happening to us then we don't really need to worry about it. And sometimes, it's easy not to do anything because it seems like nothing we do could ever be enough. Maybe that's true if we think of ourselves as individuals. But perhaps by working together, we can actually make a difference to some people's lives.

Every second Syrian refugee is a child.

If you want to assist the refugees arriving into the Westbahnhof, you can donate to Caritas Austria here. I will continue to post updates from Rowan on my Facebook page, where you can also find out how to donate directly to her so she can continue buying supplied to deliver to the Westbahnhof.